Published 4:49 PM EDT Oct 15, 2018
WASHINGTON – A former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer pleaded guilty Monday to one count of lying to the FBI during an inquiry into his contacts with journalists as part of a broader investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
James Wolfe, 57, the Senate panel's longtime director of security, had been charged with three counts of making false statements to agents who during the investigation seized emails and phone records belonging to New York Times correspondent Ali Watkins.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the two additional counts.
Watkins was one of four reporters who prosecutors alleged communicated with Wolfe. The newspaper reported earlier this year that Wolfe and Watkins had a romantic relationship that ended sometime last year.
Wolfe retired in May.
"At the time Wolfe made the false statement to the FBI, he was the director of security for the (Senate panel), a position he held for more than 28 years," the Justice Department said in a statement. "Wolfe was entrusted with receiving, maintaining, and managing classified national security information provided to the (Senate panel)."
The FBI focused on Wolfe as the source of an April 3, 2017, article written by Watkins while she was a reporter at BuzzFeed News in which she identified former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as being in contact with a Russian intelligence officer in 2013. Watkins joined The Times in December 2017.
Prosecutors notified Watkins in February that Justice had obtained information on her Google email accounts and Verizon phone, The Times reported.
The action departed from traditional practice by federal authorities, who generally notify reporters in advance before seeking their communications.
It is the first known instance in which the Trump administration has seized records from a journalist during the course of a leak investigation.
"By his guilty plea, Wolfe admitted making false statements to the FBI concerning whether he had provided unclassified, but not otherwise publicly-available, information to reporters," the Justice statement said.
Wolfe faces a maximum punishment of five years in prison. Sentencing has been set for Dec. 20.
Wolfe's attorneys asserted that their client was "never" charged with compromising classified information and such allegations are not contained in the government's plea deal.
"Jim has accepted responsibility for his actions and has chosen to resolve this matter now so that he and his family can move forward with their lives," the attorneys said in a brief statement.
"We will have much more to say about the facts and Jim's distinguished record of nearly three decades of dedicated service to the Senate and the intelligence community at his sentencing hearing."
Previously: Ex-Senate intelligence staffer James Wolfe seeks to gag President Trump in criminal case
Previously: Senate intelligence staffer linked to 'New York Times' reporter pleads not guilty in leak probe